September 26, 2011

“The ridiculous situation where supply and demand exist but cannot meet comes from the commitment to uniformity in schools. In most countries the uniformity works at a national level: A ministry of education would have to decide to adopt the new idea. In the United States there is a decentralized system that allows each town to make its own decisions. This makes it easier for some kinds of variety to exist: most easily, educational forms that match the social and class composition of a particular town. But variety on fundamental educational issues is just as effectively stalled by the requirement of majority assent on the level of a town or even of a school as on the level of a nation. The importance of the concept of the little school is that it provides a powerful, perhaps by far the most powerful, strategy to allow the operation of the principle of variation and selection.

The Rigorous Researcher will object to the populist tone of this argument. It is appropriate to buy a food processor or a garlic press on the basis of individual whim, but education is more serious. Every child deserves the best. Science should be used to find out what is the best, and then everyone should adopt the proven methods. Personal decision is simply not appropriate.

This objection depends on an assumption that is at the core of the technicalist model of education: Certain procedures are the best, and the people involved can be ordered to carry them out. But even if there were such a thing as “the best method” for learning, it would still only be the best, or even mildly good, if people (teachers, parents, and learners) believed in it. The bureaucrat thinks that you can make people believe in something by issuing orders. This belief is supported by the rationalist, who believes that you can make people believe in something by advancing convincing arguments. But what if you can’t? What if teachers and parents, and even children, persist in having different ideas? Then we have the choice of using force to run the system bureaucratically or reducing it to the common denominator of what everyone can believe. We would have totalitarian education or trivialized education.”

Papert, S. (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. NY: Basic Books. Pp 218-219.

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